Saturday, June 23, 2018

"You have to create yourself a new language": Gorguts' 'Obscura' at 20

It was well received, but it was a very small audience. It took a while. And people were like, 'What the fuck is this?' Now, when I say 'Obscura,' everybody has their fist in the air, it’s like, 'Yeah, bring it on!' [laughs]. It's time, you know? It just happens with time. The sound was able to find its right place. —Gorguts' Luc Lemay on the band's 1998 album Obscura
It just keeps coming back to Obscura. During the past 10/15 years, as I've moved through interlocking communities of forward-thinking New York musicians (metal, jazz and beyond), both as a writer and as a player, the third album by Quebecois death-metal band Gorguts — released 20 years ago today — has become sort of gold standard for stubborn individuality, for the idea of placing absolute trust in one's muse, even if it leads you to a place of what seems at first like pure insanity.

As Lemay explains in the above interview with Metal Assault (well worth your time in full), the album came about through a process of sort of forced experimentation, with the band deliberately walling itself off from its trusty methods of writing and composing.

['Obscura'] came about because we made a very clear decision, everybody together. The three writers in the band [Lemay, his late fellow guitarist/vocalist "Big" Steeve Hurdle and bassist Steve Cloutier], of course the drummer included, Steve MacDonald, was writing with us in the arrangement department and everything. [Note: MacDonald helped compose 'Obscura,' but it was actually Patrick Robert who played drums on the album.] But the thing is, we did some kind of [manifesto] together. This was right after 'Erosion' [a.k.a. the band's more-conventional 1993 album 'The Erosion of Sanity'], so we said okay, writing a new record: no fast-picking riff is going to be accepted in the music, no scat beat, which ‘Erosion’ is all about. So none of those mentioned were going to be allowed, everything else, but none of those other ones. And then we’ll start from there, and see what happens. The band also decided to do both vocals as well, so those were the main lines.
I believe no tremolo picking as well, as you mentioned in an interview a long time ago.
Exactly! Good point, that was another one.

Why were those ‘limits’ set in place?
Because, if you stay in your comfort zone, it takes forever just to incorporate a new thing in your sound. But if you force yourself not to use everything that you’re comfortable with, then you have to create yourself a new language that you’re happy with. So it forces you to explore, to touch the instrument differently, and approach the music differently as well, to get new sounds out of it.
The results speak for themselves. The album is so perverse, so chaotic and discordant, yet at the same time so logical and deliberate within the parameters it sets for itself, that it achieves sort of strange counter-intuitive serenity.

This is in some ways an ascetic sound, the product of walling one's self off from the world outside and creating a new, insular one within. But it's also the sound of pure, unfettered discovery, of a kind of seething, ecstatic creativity. (During an intense period of Gorguts immersion, I once described the record as " of the most pungently progressive albums ever made, in or out of metal. Obscura didn't just register as technical; it sounded downright excruciating, as if its shuddering blastbeats, doleful bellows, and deliriously inventive guitarwork were being torn straight from the chests of its makers.")

As fans know, Gorguts are in the midst of a glorious renaissance, which kicked off with 2013's outstanding Colored Sands and continued with 2016's equally impressive Pleiades' Dust. The gradually snowballing influence of Obscura helped set the stage for this moment, when one of extreme metal's most challenging bands could also be one of its most beloved.

In honor of 20 years of Obscura, here are a few thoughts on the record drawn from interviews in my Heavy Metal Bebop series, which began as the result of seeing pianist Craig Taborn (who would eventually meet and collaborate with Steeve Hurdle) at a Gorguts show.

Ben Monder (2017)

How would you describe what's happening on Obscura? I'm not a guitar player, so I can't necessarily verbalize it?

It's not about guitar at all. There's nothing really virtuosic on that. It's just like, there are sounds that he was getting — I don't know technically what you would even call it, like pick-scraping type things. I had never heard that before. It was more about the mystery of what was happening. I had never heard those elements put together in that way before. You know, when you first heard a record like that, you just don't know what's going on; there are all these novel ideas swimming around and colliding. And it almost seems like it shouldn't even work, but it's perfect. And it's also very integrated. It doesn't sound clever or contrived; it sounds like this integrated language that is just natural, but it's the result of all these technical elements. I like that aspect in music where it's mysterious and sounds correct and yet you have no idea how or why it works. And of course it has the darkness, and it's got "Earthly Love" with the violin. Where else is a death-metal song going to have a prominent violin feature that sounds perfect, you know? That's one of my top five metal records.

Matt Mitchell (2016)

Man, Obscura came on the other day. I've had that album for almost 20 years, since it came out, and it struck me how totally [crazy] that album is. It's so bizarre. [Laughs] It's really out there, man. And I basically live off of weird music, and that's, like, still... even in metal, there's nothing that quite goes that far.

Craig Taborn (2011)

There are a few metal albums that really intrigue me, and Obscura was one because it kind of came out of nowhere for me. That was such a weird little blip when it came out. Nobody knew what it was. It was too out. A lot of metal guys hated it. It was all wrong. The doom thing wasn’t big, and it had these things that were super-slow, and everybody hated that. Not everybody – obviously people liked it. But it was so dissonant and so dense; it was like Beefheart-metal.

Dan Weiss and I also talked about Gorguts extensively, during the first HMB interview back in 2011. He has some fascinating things to say about the drumming on the band's masterful fourth album From Wisdom to Hate.


I'd like to thank Chuck Stern, Tim Byrnes and Colin Marston (now a member of Gorguts!), fellow travelers in the NYC scene, for introducing me to Obscura sometime in the early 2000s. I had heard The Erosion of Sanity in the '90s, but it didn't really stick. When I caught up and heard how completely the band had transformed itself, I was stunned and amazed.

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